Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Heart of a Father

(11th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on 14 & 15 June, 2008 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See Matthew 9:36-10:4)

I am sure that all of us are familiar with the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus: a heart on fire and burning with love for souls. In the gospel this weekend St. Matthew reveals the Sacred Heart of Christ in a particular and powerful way as the heart of a father.

In a certain sense, the heart of God the Father beats inside the incarnate Son of God. The burning love and desire of the Father finds its beautiful expression in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ, His Son.

St. Matthew describes how Christ looked out at the multitude of people before Him and was stirred with emotion at what He saw:

At the sight of the crowds, Jesus’ heart was moved with pity for them.
—Matthew 9:36

The word St. Matthew uses is the strongest word for pity in the Greek language. It means, literally, to be effected deep within one's body. When He looked out at the people, their condition moved Him physically as well as spiritually. Why?

Because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.
—Matthew 9:36

The men God had appointed to lead and guide them in the spiritual life, those commissioned to be spiritual fathers in Israel, had failed. Instead of caring for the flock, they had “fed themselves on their sheep” (Ezekiel 34:1-16). Suddenly Christ responds to that desperate situation but His response is not what we would first expect: He does not react in anger or in bitter frustration. He responds with the heart of a father. His first response, made in love, is prayer.

Jesus prays and He commands the disciples gathered before Him to pray, as well:

Ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.
—Matthew 9:38

Then, with that prayer still on their lips, He sends out the Twelve Apostles. The mystery of prayer often works like that. God inspires and even commands us to pray for something so that He can then give us the very thing we ask for. He says to us:

“Ask me. Ask me for forgiveness. Ask me for mercy. Ask me for grace and strength in your spiritual life. Ask me for the infinite joy of the Holy Spirit.”

And then He proceeds to pour out upon us those very things we have asked for!

“Ask the master of the harvest,” Jesus commands, “to send out laborers for his harvest” (Matthew 9:38). Then He sends out the twelve; ordinary men sent to do the extraordinary work of the gospel.

There is a spiritual principle at work here, however, that is important for us to recognize: Grace builds on nature. God does not work against our nature when it comes to the spiritual life and the building up of the Church. Grace builds on nature. Christ builds on what is already present in each person He chooses and calls. He takes our natural gifts and abilities, as well as our unique characteristics, likes and dislikes, and then He builds upon that with His supernatural gifts.

Peter, Andrew, James and John were all fishermen. That is what they did. They were good at it, and they enjoyed it. Christ does not short circuit them and reprogram their natural desires. They were fishermen, but Christ now says to them: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). You used to catch fish, but now you will be catching men and women for the kingdom of God. Grace builds on nature.

The same is true of St. Matthew, the tax collector. He used to use his pen to mark down who paid and who owed him money. He would tally up his riches and look at them in ink and paper. When Christ calls him to be an Apostle and Evangelist, he never lays down that pen. Instead he now uses it to write down the gospel and share the message of salvation and mercy.

Grace builds on nature. It was true in the first century and it remains true today. For nine years I worked for Stop & Shop Supermarket Companies. I worked with hundreds of people and met thousands in the different stores throughout the state. God has built upon that foundation in the work that He has called me to as a parish priest, working with and serving thousands of people in the supernatural ministry of proclaiming the gospel.

The bishops of our country recently published an article on the men from across the United States who will be ordained to the priesthood this year (five of them will be from our own Diocese of Providence! We have much to celebrate here in the local Church). The article listed some of the professions of those men before they entered the seminary: a dean of a major university, a United States Marine officer, a clinical psychologist, and many more. God will use all these gifts and experiences to build on and enhance the supernatural work of His gospel.

But one gift, one necessary requirement for all men called to the priesthood—the sine qua non for each, be he fisherman, psychologist or supermarket employee—is that he have the heart of a father. He must look out and see the people and be moved with compassion and desire to serve as Christ Himself. How desperately priests need your prayers to do that! Pray for your parish priests, and all priests, that they may have the heart of a father. It is obviously much more difficult for us than it was for Christ to have the Father’s heart burning within us. But the heart of a father is essential nonetheless if we would truly be His priests.

Which brings us back to that spiritual principle: Grace builds on nature. On this Father’s Day I can reflect on the fact that what I have known and experienced of spiritual fatherhood has come to me firstly through my own Dad. His example and life in my family is the foundation on which God has built in making me a spiritual father to His people. I thank God for my Dad and pray in thanksgiving for the many things he taught me and for his support on my way to the priesthood.

Our fathers teach us how to love, how to be strong in our families and how to sacrifice for the sake of others. There are no perfect fathers on this side of heaven, and though perhaps sometimes through mistakes and imperfections, all of our fathers give us the solid foundation on which God continues to build as we strive for the kingdom of God.

Together we thank God for them all. May God continue to bless our fathers, as well as the world we live in, through them. And may we respond well to the call of Christ in the Gospel of St. Matthew this weekend, to “ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest” (Matthew 9:38). May God continue to send us men who have the heart of a father, willing to love as Christ loves, for the glory of God and the building up of His Church.